Myanmar's monasteries have been used as meeting points for dissidents, makeshift hospitals and places of refuge. Monks have paid a heavy price, often being arrested or killed. Today they are hoping for democracy.
Located at the end of a dusty road in Yangon, the Maggin monastery is currently a construction site. Workers are building a new wall and sewers. Recently released from jail as part of a general amnesty, the monk Eain Daka smiles and says the work is crucial.
During the "Saffron Revolution" of 2007, he explains, the monastery "was a kind of political meeting place. We dispensed medicine and helped people. The army hated us and that's why they destroyed everything."
He adds that U Gambira, a monk who perhaps had the most prominent role during the protests, often came to the monastery during that time. He too was only recently released from jail, Eain Daka says. He was not in very good shape and has gone to visit his mother in the north, who is seriously ill.
Dozens of monks were arrested when the army cracked down on the 'Saffron Revolution'
Eain Daka smiles again as he looks around. "We may have been released but we cannot really feel free of course," he says, adding that he knows there are plainclothes policemen keeping tabs on them.
Although it has introduced some reforms, the civilian government headed by President Thein Sein remains deeply distrustful of the monks in Myanmar. But Eain Daka says he would prefer to move away from the frontlines, especially now that there is a clear political opposition movement headed by Aung San Suu Kyi.
'Life is not normal'
At the smaller, less known Shwe Taung monastery elsewhere in Yangon, Panna Wuntha is not smiling. The head of the monastery also just got out of jail.
"It was my second bout of detention," he says. "I was jailed for eight years during the big 1988 uprisings and then again for four years for my role as one of the leaders of the Saffron Revolution."
Although his monastery was not destroyed, it has been closed.
The monasteries played an important role for the protest movement
"When I was released I thought it didn't matter but the police came and sealed the door again. Life is not normal here."
But some monks, including U Ban Ditha, are trying to lead a normal life anyway. "I always get up at 5 and make breakfast. Then I learn English all morning. I really like that."
In the afternoons, he and the other monks go to an internet cafe to prepare for the future, for democracy in Myanmar.
Author: Udo Schmidt / act
Editor: Sarah Berning